Scott points out in his article that there has long been a desire in American literary culture to identify the one greatest novel, the single magnificent work that gathers in or sums up or rises above all other novels, that achieves a status similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Did this desire to isolate and coronate the “Great American Novel” play some kind of role in Winters’s thinking as he strove throughout his career to discover and champion the very best works of literature, that is, those very few works he wished to designate as “great”? That is worth pondering. I think it might have.
Here’s a long, interesting passage from the Scott article:
It is perhaps this babble and ruckus -- the polite word is diversity… the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We -- Americans, writers, American writers -- seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy -- even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books.
To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply -- or not really -- to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here [in the Times poll]. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject. They are -- the top five, in any case, in ascending order -–
American Pastoral, Philip Roth, with 7 votes
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 8 votes and
Updike's four-in-one Rabbit Angstrom, 8 votes
Don DeLillo's Underworld, 11 votes
Toni Morrison's Beloved, 15 votes
The list of voters obviously was small (the Mid-Cult elite?), and they were all from that guild Macdonald would have called “Mid-Cult” (though some of these writers and critics surely aspire to being considered part of “High-Cult” or believe that they already are in or close to it). I think this list of “great” novels is worth thinking about for Wintersians. Not a one of those top-five novels (considering the 4 Rabbit novels as one) achieves “greatness” in my judgment, in what I understand to be Yvor Winters’s sense of the term: a work of such distinction and near artistic perfection that it can serve as a model by which to judge all other works of narrative literature. It would be interesting to hear what Wintersians think of these novels and what they would propose as their own greats in fiction from the last 25 years, if any -- or greats of all time in American literature, for that matter. Choosing the great novels, in Winters’s sense of “great”, is a worthy project for the near future, a much-needed way to build upon Yvor Winters’s critical work, now that he has been gone for so long (he died in January, 1968).
The Times’ list of recent eminent novels calls to mind Winters’s relatively unknown judgment of the greatest novelists, a subject which he had little to say about in his published criticism. Turner Cassity, poet, professor and one-time Winters student at Stanford, reported briefly on Winters’s judgment of the greats of narrative literature in his reminiscence of Winters published in the excellent 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford. Cassity recalled that Winters told a student, who had asked him who he thought are the “great” novelists, that Cervantes, Melville, and Proust are the three greatest novelists. Does anything listed in the Times top-five come close to the finest work of these three?
Note, however -- in contrast to Winters’s commonly bewilderingly eccentric evaluations of individual poems and poets (which garnered him so much scorn in literary culture) -- that there is nothing the least peculiar in the choice of those three writers. They all now rank high in the Standard Canon, though Melville was not highly regarded until about 70 years after Moby Dick was published and Proust is a modern who started high and has been on the rise for the past 50 years. Cervantes’s Don Quixote recently made the very top spot, Number 1, in a list of the greatest literary works of the millennium (I can’t recall off hand where that was published or who was involved in the selection). Melville inspires practically a churning literary industry of his own in the US, though Britain and Europe are beginning to catch Melville fever, too. And Proust is generally regarded, alongside only Joyce, as the world’s greatest novelist of modern times, with dozens of books being written about his seven-part A la recherche every year.
There’s something a little disappointing in Winters’s judgment of the great novelists for me. Isn’t one of the chief joys of reading Winters the making of discoveries? Who can forget, if one is a Wintersian, those great lost works Winters guided us to, such as to that first reading of Ben Jonson’s long neglected “To Heaven”; or to Herbert’s astonishing and mostly forgotten “Church Monuments”; or to the haunting power of Stevens’s late poem “The Course of a Particular”; or the depth and brilliance of Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which was almost wholly lost to oblivion? All those great, truly great poems that the keepers of the Standard Canon entirely missed! That was one of the great joys of first reading Winters, those moments of discovery that came like bolts of illumination from some other realm, some higher plane that Winters alone seemed able to reach and traverse.
But there is little to be discovered in the threesome Winters chose as the greatest in narrative literature (though Winters did make a couple of stunning discoveries in prose literature, a subject which I will come back to in the near future in this blog). Winters, apparently (judging from how Cassity tells the story), was sure that there was something daring or extraordinary in his choice of these three greats, for he added to the student, according to Cassity, “And what do you think of THAT!” Well, nowadays, there is little in his judgment that is surprising at all.
As I say, the work of Winters in redefining the canon according to the principles of Reason should continue in the area of narrative literature. I would be pleased to see this blog begin that work. To what bolt-of-lightning discoveries can the Wintersians lead each other? I wait and hope.